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Modern Love: Talking to Your Teen About Sex & Relationships

Forget About "The Talk"

There is no eve-of-the-13th-birthday sit-down at the kitchen table. Instead, you need to establish an ongoing dialogue. "Kids can absorb only so much at any one time," says Casparian. "They need to hear things, think about them and come back again to ask or talk from a different perspective." The opportunities are everywhere once you start looking for them. While you're driving the carpool, for instance, kids may discuss TV shows, parties, or social situations at school. Later you can say to your child, "I couldn't help overhearing you and your friends in the car, and I was wondering what you thought about...." And they need you to address all the themes relevant to sex. "The conversation can't be just about biology. It also has to be about values, ideas, beliefs, experiences, and respect," says Brown. Which means it isn't enough just to lay down the law, observes Barbara Fick, a Bethesda, Maryland, mother of three, ages 14, 9, and 7. "I think too many parents only make rules, like you can't date, and then think they've talked to their kids about sex," she says. "Then kids go behind their parents' backs because they're afraid of getting into trouble."

Suzi Peterson Steward, a mother in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says she's had her best successes keeping things casual. "I often bring topics up with my 17-year-old daughter when we're cooking," she says. "She acts as if she's just allowing me to blather on, but later she'll ask a related question, which shows me she's processing what we've talked about." However you get the conversation going, be sure to keep it two-way. "Zero in on what they're asking and why, and give short, simple replies," suggests Casparian. "If you lecture and don't listen to their responses, they'll tune you out."

Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions

One reason kids don't ask parents about sex is they're worried you'll automatically assume they're having it. Peppering them with "are you or aren't you?" questions will likely derail the conversation and make them less likely to come to you in the future. Conversely, avoid assuming that your kids aren't having sex if they aren't talking about it. If they do bring it up, a good first response is, "I'm happy you felt you could ask me that." Then see where your teen steers the conversation. And between talks, always monitor who they're with, where they are, and what they're doing so you can initiate conversations when you feel it's warranted. You could say, "You may feel like I'm prying by asking you some questions about sex, but because I'm your parent I need to make sure you're not putting yourself in harm's way."